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Renaissance music

This article is part of the
History of art music

20th century

Renaissance music is classical music written during the Renaissance period, approximately 1400 to 1600 A.D. Defining the end of the period is easier than defining the beginning, since there were no revolutionary shifts in musical thinking at the beginning of the 15th century corresponding to the sudden development of the styles corresponding to the Baroque era around 1600, and the process by which music acquired "Renaissance" characteristics was a gradual one.

The increasing reliance on the interval of the third as a consonance is one of the most pronounced features of early Renaissance European art music (in the Middle Ages, thirds had been considered dissonances: see interval). Polyphony, in use since the 12th century, became increasingly elaborate with highly independent voices throughout the 14th century: the beginning of the 15th century showed simplification, with the voices often striving for smoothness. This was possible because of a greatly increased vocal range in music—in the Middle Ages, the narrow range made necessary frequent crossing of parts, which also made it necessary to write highly contrasting parts.

Towards the end of the 15th century, polyphonic sacred music (as exemplified in the masses of Ockeghem and Obrecht) had once again become complex, in a manner correlating to the stunning detail in the painting at the time; this was followed in the early 16th century by another trend towards simplification, as can be seen in the work of Josquin, and later of Palestrina, who was partially reacting to the strictures of the Council of Trent, which discouraged excessively complex polyphony as inhibiting understanding the text.

In the late 16th century, there were several important, contrasting trends. In secular music, especially in the madrigal, there was a trend towards complexity and even extreme chromaticism (as exemplified in madrigals of Luzzaschi, Marenzio, and Gesualdo). Meanwhile, beginning in Florence, there was an attempt to revive the dramatic and musical forms of Ancient Greece, through the means of monody, a form of declaimed music over a simple accompaniment; a more extreme contrast with the preceding polyphonic style would be hard to find; this was also, at least at the outset, a secular trend. In Venice, from about 1550 until around 1610, an impressive polychoral style developed, which gave Europe some of the grandest, most sonorous music composed up until that time, with multiple choirs of singers, brass and strings in different spatial locations in the Basilica San Marco di Venezia (see Venetian polychoral style). These multiple revolutions spread over Europe in the next several decades, beginning in Germany and then moving to Spain, France and England somewhat later, demarcating the beginning of what we now know as the Baroque musical era.

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Italian Renaissance
Northern Renaissance
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Music with essentially Renaissance characteristics continued to be composed, particularly in England, but also in Spain, Portugal, and France, for the first few decades of the 17th century (see English Madrigal School, air de cour). In addition, many composers observed a division in their own works between a prima prattica (music in the Renaissance polyphonic style) and a seconda prattica (music in the new style) during the first part of the 17th century.

Principal liturgical forms which endured throughout the entire Renaissance period were masses and motets, with some other developments towards the end, especially as composers of sacred music began to adopt secular forms (such as the madrigal) for their own designs. During the period, secular music had an increasingly wide distribution, with a wide variety of forms, but one must be cautious about assuming an explosion in variety: since printing made music more widely available, much more has survived from this era than from the preceding Medieval era, and probably a rich store of popular music of the late Middle Ages is irretrievably lost. Secular music included songs for one or many voices, forms such as the frottola, chanson and madrigal, consort music for recorder or viol and other instruments, and dances for various ensembles; and towards the end of the period, the early dramatic precursors of opera such as monody, the madrigal comedy, and the intermedio.

Renaissance music was modal as opposed to tonal. Modality began to break down towards the end of the period, with root motions of fifths, one of the defining characteristics of tonality, becoming common, especially near cadences.


Notation and performance

According to Margaret Bent (1998), "Renaissance notation is under-prescriptive by our standards; when translated into modern form it acquires a prescriptive weight that overspecifies and distorts its original openness." Accidentals were not necessary, somewhat like fingering notation today. However, Renaissance musicians would have been highly trained in dyadic counterpoint and thus possessed this and other information necessary to read a score, "what modern notation requires [accidentals] would then have been perfectly apparent without notation to a singer versed in counterpoint." A singer would interpret his or her part by figuring cadential formulas with other parts in mind, and when singing together musicians would avoid parallel octaves and fifths or alter their cadential parts in light of decisions by other musicians (Bent, 1998).


Schools and Stylistic Trends


Music Theorists


  • Judd, Cristle Collins (ed.) (1998). Tonal Structures of Early Music. New York: Garland Publishing. ISBN 0815323883.
    • Bent, Margaret. "The Grammar of Early Music: Preconditions for Analysis".

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45